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Updated on September 14, 2023
7 min read

What are the Risks of Alcoholic Cirrhosis and Is It Reversible?

Joy Emeh
Elena Borrelli M.S.PAC
Written by 
8 Sources Cited
Joy Emeh
Written by 
8 Sources Cited

Alcoholic cirrhosis is a serious medical condition that excessive, prolonged consumption of ethanol-containing beverages causes. It affects the liver, leading to irreversible scarring and tissue damage that can be life-threatening if not treated in time.

While treatments are available, it’s important to understand the risks associated with this condition and whether or not it's reversible. This blog explores these topics in greater detail so you can make informed decisions when drinking alcohol.

What is Alcoholic Cirrhosis?

Alcoholic cirrhosis is an alcohol-induced liver disease that has progressed to the late stage. Alcoholic liver disease (ALD) describes damage to the liver and abnormal liver function due to alcohol abuse.

Blood tests often confirm this damage. Alcohol abuse can result in the following liver conditions:2

  • Fatty liver
  • Alcoholic hepatitis or severe alcoholic hepatitis (inflammation of the liver)
  • Alcoholic liver cirrhosis (liver disease)
  • Hepatocellular carcinoma (liver cancer)

Alcoholic cirrhosis is irreversible inflammation and thickening of liver tissue alcohol use causes. It's an end-stage liver disease that occurs after years of alcohol intake. 

Vital Roles of the Liver and Alcohol's Impact

The liver is the largest internal organ. It plays vital roles in the body, such as:

  • Breaking down proteins
  • Filtering blood
  • Producing bile that helps with fat absorption

Excess alcohol intake over time can lead to liver diseases and scar tissue (liver fibrosis). This can interfere with liver function.

Progression and Impact of Alcoholic Liver Disease

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), alcohol-related liver disease is the primary cause of deaths related to alcohol intake. Heavy alcoholics typically progress from fatty liver to hepatitis and cirrhosis.6

Decades of heavy alcohol intake cause the body to replace healthy liver tissue with scar tissue. The medical term for this is “alcoholic liver cirrhosis.”

As alcoholic liver disease progresses, more healthy liver tissue is replaced by scar tissue. Liver diseases like alcoholic liver cirrhosis also affect liver function.

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What Causes Alcohol-Induced Cirrhosis?

Alcoholic liver cirrhosis is an advanced form of alcohol-related liver disease caused by years of alcohol abuse.1 Heavy alcohol consumption of about 60 to 80g/day for men or 20 to 50g/day for women increases the risk of alcoholic liver cirrhosis.7

Different factors can cause cirrhosis of the liver. However, alcohol-induced cirrhosis is directly linked to chronic alcohol use.

How Does Alcohol Affect the Liver?

Liver damage from alcohol occurs in several stages:

1. Fatty Liver

Fatty liver refers to the buildup of fat in your liver. This condition is usually reversible and may not cause serious health issues. You may not even have symptoms. However, it can be a warning sign that you drink too much.

2. Alcoholic Hepatitis

From fatty liver, the condition progresses to alcoholic hepatitis. This condition occurs when healthy liver cells die. You may experience significant health problems in this stage since alcoholic hepatitis is a more serious form of liver damage. Fortunately, it's reversible.

3. Cirrhosis

Cirrhosis is the buildup of scar tissue in your liver. This is usually irreversible and can cause severe illness. If cirrhosis progresses significantly, you may require a liver transplant or experience liver failure.

How Much Do You Have to Drink to Get Cirrhosis?

The time it takes to develop cirrhosis varies from person to person. Some studies have shown that a person has to drink heavily for at least eight years to develop cirrhosis. The NIAAA defines heavy drinking as consuming more than 14 drinks per week for men and more than seven drinks per week for women.3

Binge drinking can also contribute to liver damage. Binge drinking involves consuming more than four to five servings of alcohol in two hours.

Who is More at Risk of Developing Alcoholic Cirrhosis?

Drinking alcohol reduces life expectancy. People who drink alcohol heavily are prone to cirrhosis. 

The most significant risk factor for alcoholic liver cirrhosis is chronic alcohol abuse. In 2010, alcoholic cirrhosis caused the death of 493,300 people (336,400 male deaths and 156,900 female deaths) globally.8

Other risk factors of alcoholic cirrhosis are:

Gender

Women have a higher risk of developing alcohol-related diseases. This is because they don't have as many enzymes in their gastrointestinal (GI) tract as men. This makes it easier for alcohol to reach the liver and causes damage to the healthy liver cells.

Genetic Factors

The development of alcoholic liver disease can be linked to genetic factors. For instance, people born with an enzyme deficiency involved in alcohol elimination have a higher risk of developing alcohol-induced liver disease.

Disease Conditions

Some diseases like hepatitis C and obesity can increase a person’s likelihood of developing alcoholic liver disease.

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What are the Symptoms of Alcoholic Liver Cirrhosis?

Alcoholic liver cirrhosis is a chronic liver disease. People with the condition usually don't present symptoms during the early stages.

However, advanced alcoholic cirrhosis shows noticeable symptoms similar to those of other diseases affecting the liver. The symptoms of alcohol-induced cirrhosis of the liver include:

  • Jaundice (yellow discoloration of the eyes and skin)
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea
  • Skin itching
  • Weight loss
  • Portal hypertension (high blood pressure in veins that supply the liver)
  • Bruising or bleeding easily
  • Loss of sex drive
  • Redness in palms of the hand
  • Ascites (accumulation of fluid in the abdomen)
  • Confusion and drowsiness
  • Slurred speech

Alcoholic Liver Cirrhosis vs. Non-Alcoholic Liver Cirrhosis 

Alcoholic liver cirrhosis and non-alcoholic liver cirrhosis both occur from liver cirrhosis. However, the difference in both conditions is in their causes.

Chronic excessive alcohol intake causes alcoholic liver cirrhosis. However, other factors unrelated to alcoholism can make someone vulnerable to non-alcoholic liver cirrhosis.

Non-alcoholic liver cirrhosis is due to the cirrhosis of the liver that drinking doesn't cause. The factors that can make someone vulnerable to this condition include:

  • Being overweight or obese
  • High blood sugar levels
  • Insulin resistance
  • High fat levels in the blood

Too much collection of fats in the liver can cause non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). The main complication of NAFLD is advanced-stage scarring of the liver.

Potential Complications of Alcoholic Cirrhosis

Alcoholic cirrhosis can result in serious complications such as liver cancer. This is called decompensated cirrhosis. Decompensated alcoholic cirrhosis is when liver function has been affected due to alcohol abuse. 

Some potential complications of alcoholic liver cirrhosis are:

  • Internal bleeding
  • Jaundice
  • Ascites
  • Swelling in the legs
  • Liver cancer
  • Hepatic encephalopathy (a nervous system disorder caused by severe liver disease)
  • Enlargement of the spleen
  • Malnutrition
  • Infections

How Long Can You Live With Alcoholic Cirrhosis?

The lifespan of people living with liver cirrhosis depends on the stage of the condition and varies by person. People whose bodies can manage the condition may live for six to 12 years. However, people with advanced-stage liver disease survive for a shorter duration.

About 50 percent of people with severe alcoholic cirrhosis live for up to two years. Approximately 35 percent live for up to 5 years.4

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Diagnosis & Treatment of Alcoholic Liver Cirrhosis

Alcoholic liver cirrhosis is typically diagnosed when a history of heavy alcohol consumption over a long duration comes with laboratory evidence. Alcohol dependence alone isn't enough to determine if you have it.

However, it's a significant risk factor during diagnosis. Alcoholic liver diseases like cirrhosis may be difficult to diagnose as some patients deny drinking alcohol abuse.

Initial Treatment and Lifestyle Changes for Alcoholic Liver Cirrhosis

The first step in treating alcoholic liver cirrhosis is to quit alcoholism. This is called abstinence. Alcohol abstinence may help reverse the early stages of liver disease.

The treatments for alcoholism include:

It's also important for people with liver cirrhosis to make certain lifestyle changes. For instance, they may:

  • Quitting smoking
  • Taking multivitamins
  • Weight loss

Advanced Treatment Options for Alcoholic Liver Cirrhosis

The other treatment options for alcoholic liver cirrhosis include:

  • Medications
  • Liver transplant
  • Stem cell therapy 

Is Cirrhosis Reversible?

Many doctors believe liver damage from cirrhosis is irreversible. However, some recent studies have shown that liver cirrhosis may be reversible.5 Moreover, recovery from this condition depends on your cirrhosis and if you stop drinking.

Scientists are still developing better medical treatment options for alcoholic liver disease. Early diagnosis and treatment are key to helping prevent further damage.

Liver cirrhosis is an advanced liver disease. As cirrhosis progresses, it causes more damage. Quitting drinking immediately can help increase life expectancy.

Summary

Alcoholic liver cirrhosis is a chronic condition excessive consumption of alcohol causes. It's usually diagnosed through laboratory tests and patient history. Genetic factors can make some susceptible to alcoholic cirrhosis even without drinking.

Various treatments for this condition are available. Liver damage from the condition may be reversible with early diagnosis and treatment if you stop drinking.

Alcoholic cirrhosis requires professional medical treatment and lifestyle changes to prevent further liver damage. Therefore, visit a healthcare provider immediately if you exhibit its symptoms.

Updated on September 14, 2023
8 sources cited
Updated on September 14, 2023
All Alcoholrehabhelp content is medically reviewed or fact checked to ensure as much factual accuracy as possible.

We have strict sourcing guidelines and only link to reputable media sites, academic research institutions and, whenever possible, medically peer reviewed studies.
  1. Alcoholic Cirrhosis.” Stanford Health Care.
  2. Basra et al. “ Definition, Epidemiology, and Magnitude of Alcoholic Hepatitis.” World Journal of Hepatology, 2011.
  3. Drinking Levels Defined.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
  4. Gunter, J. “ Cirrhosis: Advanced Liver Disease.” National AIDS Treatment Advocacy Project, 2001.
  5. Jung et al. “ Reversal of Liver Cirrhosis: Current Evidence and Expectations.” The Korean Journal of Internal Medicine, 2017.
  6. Mann et al. “The Epidemiology of Alcoholic Liver Disease.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 2003.
  7. Mellinger, J. “ Epidemiology of Alcohol Use and Alcoholic Liver Disease.” Clinical Liver Disease, 2019.
  8. Rhem et al. “Global Burden of Alcoholic Liver Diseases.” Journal of Hepatology, 2013.
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